‘Coffins’ and now chaos
Until Wednesday, Russ Kick had to live with rejection. The author of quirky books like “50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know” and proprietor of the Memory Hole website said government agencies have rejected many, if not most, of his 200 Freedom of Information Act requests over the years.
But when he finally won an appeal, it was big -- prompting massive media coverage and setting off a debate on the use of emotionally charged images in wartime.
It began when Kick opened his mail last week and found a letter from the U.S. Air Force granting his request for all photographs taken after February 2003 of caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Included was a CD-ROM of 361 photos not just of flag-draped coffins, but also of uniformed pallbearers or fellow soldiers in camouflage bowing their heads, caring for the remains of fallen comrades.
That night, Kick uploaded the photos on his website with the title “Photos of Military Coffins (Casualties From Iraq) at Dover Air Force Base” and went to bed.
Thursday morning, Kick awoke to an explosion of ringing phones. A new media player had been born.
The photos had appeared in the nation’s major newspapers and were on heavy rotation on CNN. Heavy Internet traffic had overwhelmed and disabled his website. (Kick said there were 4.2 million hits on www.the memoryhole.org on Friday and nearly 5 million on Saturday.)
“CBS had called and wanted to send a camera out to interview me for the evening news with Dan Rather. While the camera crew was setting up, ABC called saying, ‘We want to fly you out to New York for “Good Morning America” tomorrow morning, so you have to leave in a couple of hours.’ While that was going on, more calls were coming in.”
Forty-eight hours later, Kick looked dazed back home in Tucson, in the dim ground-floor apartment he shares with “permanent fiancee” Anne Brooks, a crisis counselor, and two loyal rescue cats. Boxes of unpacked files covered the floor.
An unlikely provocateur, Kick, 34, is friendly, somber and slow-spoken, with shoulder-length hair and substantial spectacles. He usually spends his waking hours reading newspapers and websites, scouting for potential FOIA request subjects. Brooks calls him an “absent-minded professor” who can tell you every detail about suppressed FBI reports but can’t find the electric bill. She serves as his agent and publicist because if left to himself, he would stay home in front of his computer 24 hours a day, she said. “He could spend a whole week in the house,” she said.
Kick’s unlikely success marks the rise of a new and significant third player in the news game, said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University. “Before, you had two players: the government/military who could control photos and access to the base, and the press, which is trying to get pictures and access. Now, you have a third interest you could call the Web. It’s not just another medium and way to distribute stuff and reach people. But other actors come into play who might have some of the same goals as the press, but aren’t the press.”
Robert S. Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said of Kick: “He pried loose information that probably nobody else could. He was probably too naive to know that he would get turned down, so he got through. A Washington correspondent for a major newspaper would know it would be a waste of time.”
Kick is against the war, and realizes his publishing of the photos could be taken as a political act. However, he said he was more motivated by his passion to bring to light hidden images.
Photographs of returning war dead have been a sensitive issue since Vietnam, when, it is widely believed, they helped turn public opinion against the war.
Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, believes the timing of the photos, in conjunction with the death of former NFL football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last week, could mark a shift in public opinion about the war.
Others, including his colleague Lichter, aren’t so sure. “Politicians don’t give people enough credit,” Lichter said. “They’re afraid that the emotions of a picture will scare people out of their reasoned opinions. Usually, it isn’t so.”
While Kick has run into strangers calling him a hero, not everyone was happy. The Pentagon called the release a mistake and renewed its ban on releasing such images to the media, saying they violate the privacy of troops’ families. Then NASA protested that several dozen of the images were actually Space Shuttle Columbia victims, not Iraqi war dead after all.
That mistake placed Kick in the middle of one of the stickiest problems associated with e-media -- the potential for the virus-like spread of misinformation.
At one point while he was trying to obtain the photos, Kick said, he had an e-mail exchange with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command asking if he also wanted photos of the astronauts’ caskets. “I said don’t worry about the astronauts. Just the soldiers killed overseas.”
In its cover letter, he said, the Air Force didn’t mention anything about the astronauts, or if any of the caskets came from Afghanistan. “There was no context. When the CD showed up, I was so overwhelmed and surprised, I didn’t even think about the first 73 that are actually the astronauts,” he said.
“I wish I had realized that at first.”
He offered on his site to send high-resolution versions of the photos to news agencies wanting to reproduce them. He said he gave photos only to CBS and Newsweek.
“The rest just pulled them off the Web and ran those,” he said.
A number of media organizations have run corrections or clarifications. Kick is also sensitive about his credibility, and by Sunday had posted an update on the site stating 73 of the photos were of the Columbia astronauts and the remaining 288 were of the war dead.
“The overall thrust of it is still correct,” he said. “These are photographs of military caskets coming into Dover. You were not allowed to see them by orders of the Pentagon. And now here they are.”
Kick said he is motivated by a passionate and eclectic interest in archiving endangered information that goes far beyond the political to lost languages, mistreated whales or finalists’ designs for the new $20 bill. “I do get angry when it’s obvious somebody is lying to us, or keeping something from us. I take it personally,” he said.
A psychology major at Tennessee Tech, Kick started out with small unnoticed books like “Psychotropedia: A Guide to Publications on the Periphery” and “Hot Off the Net: Erotica and Other Sex Writings From the Internet.” But now he earns a living as the bestselling author for the slick and independent Disinformation Company, writing small novelty books and editing oversized anthologies of counterculture pieces by better-known authors, such as “You Are Being Lied To: The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths.”
In 2002, he started his “labor of love,” a moderately successful noncommercial website called the Memory Hole after an incinerator in George Orwell’s “1984" that destroys information the government finds embarrassing. He gets donations and sometimes hard-to-get reports from visitors to his website.
Last October, the New York Times wrote a Page One story about his success in restoring blacked-out portions of a Justice Department report (he used Adobe Acrobat) on its failures in diversity hiring. The report was downloaded from the Memory Hole 340,000 times.
Kick said he decided to ask for the casket photos last fall after he read a Washington Post story that the Pentagon had clamped down on a military-wide policy not to allow media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to the base at Dover, the largest mortuary operated by the Department of Defense. Kick read something into the story that others apparently did not see.
“I was pretty sure because of that directive that said ‘don’t show them,’ well, there must be pictures to show.... I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ A stamp. I’ve made many requests before that didn’t go anywhere, so I’ll just send these in and see what happens.”